One reason, perhaps, that there have been so many movies made about New Orleans is that the very geography of the city is the stuff of Shakespearean drama. The constant threat of annihilation, vibrancy in the face of fear, an electrifying inequality, a touch of hubris perhaps—it’s all there. Equally true is that in many cases these seductive narratives have all but obliterated the people who make New Orleans: New Orleanians.
This is the backdrop against which Beasts of the Southern Wild, the debut feature from director Benh Zeitlin and one of the most powerful movies ever made about the city, emerges. Zeitlin, a 29-year old filmmaker who moved there from Queens in 2004, is a member of Court 13, a community–based film collective headquartered near the French Quarter that has coalesced around what Zeitlin calls, “a code of honor.” It’s like an American Dogme 95. “The most fundamental idea behind our process,” Zeitlin explains, “is that we try to make the creation of the film mirror the reality of the actual story.”
That’s a tall order considering the magical realism of Beasts of the Southern Wild. The film unfolds in a fringe community of misfits called The Bathtub. Residents of The Bathtub live beyond the levee, effectively beyond the reach of either the laws of man or God and beyond the protection afforded the levee. It’s an enclave of beaten-up trailers, jerry-rigged boats, crab feasts, outcasts, and glorious bacchanals. There’s no money in The Bathtub, but as Zeitlin says, an “absence of money doesn’t mean poverty.” His film, executed on a shoestring budget, is proof.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is the Best Movie About New Orleans
except, not really? the film takes place in southern Louisiana and was shot in Terrebone Parish, which is a good minute outside of New Orleans (tried to google map it but ass all that land down there is marsh it was all does not compute. but it takes an hour to get to Houma so im gonna guess it takes maybe 2-3 hours to get to NO?). and New Orleans citified living and bayou living are………two very different experiences. one is urban and one is rural. as in rural. and from what I can tell the film has no scenes set in New Orleans.
basically it’s as if someone shot a film in Macon, GA and someone says “it’s the best film about Atlanta!!!!” no. it’s not about Atlanta at all. and this film, from what i can tell from not having seen it yet, isn’t about New Orleans either.
ETA: tl;dr there’s a thing that people do where they conflate New Orleans with all of Louisiana and it’s inaccurate and annoying stop it.
Thank you for the commentary.
I wonder, just as a point of discussion (and maybe broadening the subject) how the conflation of bayou life with urban life in this film is a reflection of a seemingly ubiquitous conflation of rurality with “True America”? Which makes me wonder, further, how that narrative is itself the result of combined white flight fantasies (leaving the “crowded” [read: POC-heavy] urban center to return to the pastoral [read: white-centric] rural land/roots) and the sort of US mythmaking about our “agrarian past”?
I guess I was wondering those two things, because I was wondering, more specifically, what that conflation/sublimation becomes when focusing on POC.
After all, we do have more of a history of being part of this country’s so-called “agrarian past.”
yes! we really do. and i hadn’t thought of that, how race played into the way bbook choose to frame this (surprise surprise lol). exactly because of what you’re saying: at this point blackness has so come to signify urban experience that maybe it completely flew over their heads there ain’t nary a skyscraper to be seen in the film. and we know “true america” is coded as white. but what you’re pointing out here - yeah, there’s also that. how this idea of a rural, heartland “true america” is absolutely dependent on the erasure of black people from the rural experience. and you can even trace that erasure impulse back to the “original agrarian” himself, thomas jefferson.
but yeah, i have been thinking about how much this whole blackness + agrarian/rural life plays into the film’s reception. along with how louisiana is often positioned as this magical, unreal place - the sort of anti-reason underbelly playground of america. usually by the tourist industry, which is one of the few industries the state has going for it.
the idea of white flight i think is important here too because New Orleans has seen an reverse white flight (if you wanna cal it that) since hurricane katrina. many of whom are not from new orleans/have no prior ties. and i wonder how much of that is shaping how this film is being received……..
So many things I want to build on/respond to. But, before I forget, this somewhat tangential thought:
Am I the only one creeped out by a bunch of white people fawning over a precocious Black Girl?
Not that I don’t want her to be celebrated or given her props. Far from it. But a protective instinct in me worries about what happens to this girl when she’s no longer read as charming and precocious but quick witted and sly?
Okay, back to the main conversation, I have so many feels about the label “magical realism.” Especially since so much of it pertains to situations that don’t fit into the neat category of “real” for white folks. That is, for whatever the dreamy and/or fantastical elements to the film, why isn’t it just described as “dreamy” or “fantasy” or “scifi” more consistently (I pretty much only see POC calling it the latter two, while I pretty much consistently see white people calling it “magical realism,” hmm)?
Why is a dreamy reality, or, for that matter something NOT devoted to urban Black life being imbued with two contrasting, if somewhat complimentary ideals: the New Orleans-urban-fantasy and a magical realism predicated upon the narrative’s setting in a rural locale?
It would seem, then, that the use of NOLA as the geographic touchstone of the film’s promotion and “story” is an effort at, as you say, shoring up the city’s image of being a sort of…Wonderland, a place down the rabbit hole where society is touched by fairy dust or whatever. It’s a sales tool, exactly like you say, but what is it fueling?
Clearly, there’s only so much they can rely on the reversal of white flight to shore up the city and atmosphere. It’s like…it’s almost a synthesizing of what happens in other large cities, where NOLA creates a mythos about these ~touched~ Negros who play music on the streets and make “down home” food and are always warm with strangers.
And perhaps, in a way, that answers my initial tangent about the adoration of Quvenzhané Wallis. The image presented, the reason for relying on a young girl to promote is to create a general pretext for the innocence and charm of the subject matter. All this despite the seriousness of the subject matter, the seriousness of the lived realities of both urban and rural experiences of Blackness.
Just as a note, I’m not at all trying to tear down this movie before I see it. I’m hoping it lives up to the hype, and I anticipate enjoying it, no matter what, but some questions have to be worked out, even if working them out is merely stating them and poking at them with sticks.
I think, y’know, undergirding everything is that
white Americans love a tragedy. Like, as a collective of media consumers, there is nothing that draws us in like a tragedy. But it has to be tempered, it has to be balanced with some spark of…. I dunno, reaffirmation of white our goodness. The magical realist mantra that is being used, I think, is allowing for stuff like the initial review, I would argue, for the sort of…romantic notion of rurality in general.
Like with Jefferson, our history texts, and our media/cultural myths, LOVE the idea of the yeoman farmer. That middle class figure of hard work, who somehow is still verbose, skilled at the gentlemanly ways (whatever those are), artistic, blah blah blah. What history likes to forget or decontextualize is that figure barely existed. If you were living in rural America (and even now) you’re not only on stolen land, but your farm, if you’ve managed to become a large and successful operation like dear old Jeffy-boy, you either came from money and further capitalized it, or, being self-made, were a ruthless entrepeneur who succeeded SOLELY on breaking other people’s backs for your own gain.
No matter how magnanimous your image is.
….I forget where I was going with this…. >.<
^^^^ so much of this, yes. and i feel the same way about how homegirl is being received in all of this. she’s so brilliant and all these white folks fawning over her makes me…….uneasy.
and there’s something there about New Orleans and Louisiana being held up as these precious magic places……….that are abandoned when disaster strikes. or really, disaster is guided to these places. Katrina and the BP spill were man-made disasters. magical, but not too magic that they can’t be shat on or abandoned.
there’s also something about how Zeitlan is setting up southern louisiana as “it’s ramshackle and isolated because they want to be that way!!!!!” which, yes, self-sufficiency is a cultural thing in that area, but the rhetoric sounds an awful lot like “they’re poor because they want to be!” which needs to ignore things like history and structural inequality to make it’s argument stick.
i’ve said this before, but if you want an example of “magic realism”/fantasy and blackness/black people done right, you really need to check out Jeremy Love’s Bayou. it doesn’t sidestep the ugly.
btw boldness added.